Rachael Morrissey ‘16 is still waiting, over two and a half years after her initial Title IX complaint to the Office for Civil Rights, for her case to be closed.
“I’ve kind of stopped waiting around for it,” she said. “I have to move on with my life.”
In May 2015, The Knox Student wrote an article about Morrissey’s experience with the Grievance Panel, a group of faculty who would question the respondent and complainant to reach a decision and assign a sanction. The alleged mishandling of her case led Morrissey to file a complaint with the OCR on Aug. 15, 2014. She received notification from the OCR on Sept. 14, 2014 that her complaints were added to the first Title IX investigation against Knox.
Morrissey chose to be identified as Kathleen when the original article was written, but has now given TKS permission to use her real name.
Morrissey’s two allegations were that the college discriminated based on sex when it failed to afford her a prompt and equitable grievance procedure and that the college retaliated against her for complaining about the college’s Title IX grievance process.
Morrissey told TKS that she knows of a couple other students who have filed retaliation complaints against Knox, but the complaints came back unfounded from the OCR. A case comes back unfounded when the OCR can not find enough evidence of retaliation to open an investigation.
“I think that’s a good sign for me,” she said.
In November 2016, a fourth case was added to the OCR’s list of open investigations of sexual violence against Knox. This case is listed as “Case Three” on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Title IX Tracker. However, the date of the investigation shows that it was opened over two years prior, on Sept. 14, 2014.
Morrissey told TKS during a phone interview that her OCR complaints are those included in the document included with the new separate case, listed as “Case Three” on the Tracker.
This, however, does not change the nature of the investigation. Her allegations of discrimination based on sex and retaliation were grouped into Case One because the OCR will treat complaints filed by more than one person that raise substantially identical allegations as one complaint. This also means that despite there being four cases against Knox, this does not mean there are only four investigations against Knox, or only four complaints made. Both of Morrissey’s complaints are now listed under Case Three, but they had been investigated starting in 2014, when she was first notified.
According to an Education Department Spokesman in an email to TKS, the OCR occasionally updates their database by editing the issue codes assigned to cases, and Morrissey’s case was recategorized during a routine query on Nov. 23, in which the OCR was querying for cases under investigation for campus sexual violence. These are the only cases that the Chronicle tracks on their website as well. Morrissey’s case might have only recently been modified to include sexual violence, and therefore showed up during the November query.
“We query the system every Wednesday to generate the list of institutions under investigation for campus sexual violence. If an issue code for an existing case has only recently been modified to include sexual violence, the case will only show up when we query the system to produce the sexual violence investigation list. That’s even though the case might have been opened much earlier,” the spokesperson wrote.
This recategorizing is why it was announced as a separate case in November, despite the nature of the case itself not changing.
Morrissey did not actually see that her complaint was filed as its own case until she read a TKS article published on Dec. 7, 2016 reporting that a fourth investigation of Knox’s Title IX procedures had been announced by the Chronicle of Higher Education and realized that the information described — including the date the investigation was opened — was the same as her complaint.
Title IX Coordinator Kim Schrader, however, was contacted by the OCR via a letter to Knox that a case had been opened near the end of November 2016. She was aware that the complaint was two years old, but at the time of being notified, believed that the investigation was just being started.
Once an investigation is opened, Knox is notified and sends them any documents or information pertaining to the case that they might need. After that, it is up to the OCR.
“If they need something from us, they communicate with us. And we comply,” Schrader said.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Ed, the average time for a case for the OCR is 1.6 years. Of the 367 cases conducted by the OCR, 58 have been resolved and 309 remain open. Knox has three cases that are over two years old.
Morrissey’s frustrations lie mainly with Knox’s procedures, not the OCR’s.
“It’s not the OCR’s job to handle sexual assault cases. I’m not upset with the OCR for it taking so long. I’ve reached out to them, and they respond,” she said. “The OCR does not determine guilt or innocence or whether something happened, they’re looking at the school and only the school. I went to the school and asked for help and I feel like I did not get that help.”
Morrissey had several problems during her case, involving one of the members of the grievance panel — a former Campus Safety officer who wrote up her statement without her acknowledgement — being “extremely rude” toward her during her hearing. A former director of Campus Safety also drove to Morrissey’s house to have her sign the statement after she asked him not to. She spoke with the administration about these problems after her case was closed.
Both Campus Safety members are no longer working at Knox.
Schrader said that the decision to remove the grievance panel from Knox’s Title IX formal procedure was made for a variety of different reasons, including feedback the administration received during open listening sessions held by Student Senate.
“We got suggestions and other sort of things from that, and then we revised the procedures,” Schrader said.
Yet Morrissey believes that many of the problems during her case led the administration to reconsider the grievance panel.
“I had a meeting with [President Teresa Amott]. She did mention that a lot of the changes were as a result of the case, but it had been a build-up over time. My case might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Morrissey said.
Despite the administration removing the grievance panel from their Title IX resolution procedures and instead hiring one outside investigator who gathers statements and evidence independently, the administration has kept a panel structure as a part of the appeal process.
When either party involved in the case would like to appeal the outcome of their case, it is within their rights to request an appeal. The case goes back to a panel that is very similar to the original grievance panel, comprised of three trained employees who have undergone requisite training.
Unlike the grievance panel, however, the appeal panel cannot make any changes to the decision or sanction. The appeal panel can only choose to open the case back up to the investigator, open the case up to a different investigator, or keep the decision of the investigator. The appeal panel does not have the power to change the decision themselves.
Morrissey does not think the panel should be a part of the process at all. In her experience, she has seen four appeals come back in favor of the respondent, with only one appeal coming back in favor of the complainant. She wrote in an email to TKS that she has seen punishments be severely lessened.
“That also frustrates me, and I’ve brought that up to Teresa, and Laura and Kim, and was shut down. They’re aware of my dislike of the grievance panel,” Morrissey said.
Schrader emphasized that the appeal panel can no longer make changes to the outcome or sanctions themselves, and can only send the case back to the investigative stage.
“In every step of the process there needs to be rationale provided by the entity that’s conducting that step. So at that point the appeal panel provides their rationale for returning it to the investigative stage, the investigator takes that rationale, but then they determine the finding again,” Schrader said.
The OCR does not determine the guilt of the parties involved in the sexual violence case, only the investigator at Knox can give this decision. Rather, the OCR is responsible for investigating whether or not the college is in violation of Title IX regulations.
If Knox is found in violation of Title IX regulations, there may or may not be measures taken against the school. Most likely, a resolution agreement will be filed, detailing a list of changes Knox would have to make to comply with Title IX regulations.
Schrader is unsure how the OCR will respond to complaints filed under the grievance panel, since Knox has since removed it.
“We have no way of knowing what the resolution agreement will look like, but some of those letters do acknowledge changes that have subsequently been made and some letters … make recommendations for other changes and refer to ongoing review by the OCR for a period of time following the resolution,” Schrader said.
Schrader does not hear from the OCR in between cases being opened and only communicates with them as needed. Morrissey occasionally checks in with them, last checking in after the election, wondering if the new administration would interfere with the office’s work. Otherwise, she hasn’t heard much.
“I think they’re so overwhelmed with all the colleges under investigation right now that they’re understaffed … They’re coming out with resolutions slowly, I’m sure it’ll just take time, and I’ll be waiting when it comes out, but I’m not going to keep holding my breath for it,” she said.
Regardless, she encourages students in similar positions to utilize the resource.
“I would just encourage students to go to the OCR if they feel they haven’t been taken seriously, even with its flaws and the time, it’s there for a reason, and it’s being used, and it’s overwhelmed, but students should take advantage it. That’s the only way to keep the school accountable,” Morrissey said.